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How Egypt Switched Off the Internet

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Amid spreading protests, the Egyptian government has taken the incredible step of shutting down all communications late Thursday. Only a handful of web connections, including those to the nation’s stock exchange, remain up and running.

It’s an astonishing move, and one that seems almost unimaginable for a nation that not only has a relatively strong Internet economy but also relies on its connections to the rest of the world.

But how did the government actually do it? Is there a big kill switch inside Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s office? Do physical cables have to be destroyed? Can a lockdown like this work?

Plenty of nations place limitations on communications, sometimes very severe ones. But there are only a few examples of regimes shutting down communications entirely — Burma’s military leaders notably cut connectivity during the protests of 2007, and Nepal did a similar thing after the king took control of the government in 2005 as part of his battle against insurgents. Local Chinese authorities have also conducted similar, short-lived blockades.

The OpenNet Initiative has outlined two methods by which most nations could enact such shutdowns. Essentially, officials can either close down the routers which direct traffic over the border — hermetically sealing the country from outsiders — or go further down the chain and switch off routers at individual ISPs to prevent access for most users inside.

In its report on the Burmese crackdown, ONI suggests the junta used the second option, something made easier because it owns the only two Internet service providers in the country.

The Burmese Autonomous System (AS), which, like any other AS, is composed of several hierarchies of routers and provides the Internet infrastructure in-country. A switch off could therefore be conducted at the top by shutting off the border router(s), or a bottom up approach could be followed by first shutting down routers located a few hops deeper inside the AS.

A high-level traffic analysis of the logs of NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers indicates that the border routers corresponding to the two ISPs were not turned off suddenly. Rather, our analysis indicates that this was a gradual process.

While things aren’t clear yet, this doesn’t look like the pattern seen in Egypt, where the first indications of Internet censorship came earlier this week with the blockades against Twitter and Facebook, but when access disappeared, it disappeared fast, with 90 percent of connections dropping in an instant.

Analysis by Renesys, an Internet monitoring body, indicates the shutdown across the nation’s major Internet service providers was at precisely the same time, 12:34 a.m. EET (22:34 UTC):

Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet’s global routing table … The Egyptian government’s actions tonight have essentially wiped their country from the global map.

Instead, the signs are that the Egyptian authorities have taken a very careful and well-planned method to screen off Internet addresses at every level, from users inside the country trying to get out and from the rest of the world trying to get in.

“It looks like they’re taking action at two levels,” Rik Ferguson of Trend Micro told me. “First at the DNS level, so any attempt to resolve any address in .eg will fail — but also, in case you’re trying to get directly to an address, they are also using the Border Gateway Protocol, the system through which ISPs advertise their Internet protocol addresses to the network. Many ISPs have basically stopped advertising any internet addresses at all.”

Essentially, we’re talking about a system that no longer knows where anything is. Outsiders can’t find Egyptian websites, and insiders can’t find anything at all. It’s as if the postal system suddenly erased every address inside America — and forgot that it was even called America in the first place.

A complete border shutdown might have been easier, but Egypt has made sure that there should be no downstream impact, no loss of traffic in countries further down the cables. That will ease the diplomatic and economic pressure from other nations, and make it harder for protesters inside the country to get information in and out.

Ferguson suggests that, if nothing else, the methods used by the Egyptian government prove how fragile digital communication really is.

“What struck me most is that we’ve been extolling the virtues of the Internet for democracy and free speech, but an incident like this demonstrates how easy it is — particularly in a country where there’s a high level of governmental control — to just switch this access off.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Muhammed Ghafari

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60 Responses to “How Egypt Switched Off the Internet”

  1. I don’t know whether Egyptian economy is as much as dependent on the internet as Western economies, but anyway I’d say this is really an act of state terrorism. Facebook and Twitter aren’t really the most important apps on the net. The Egyptian government has really shown its real face by sabotaging their own economy only as a last attempt to cling on to power.

  2. Ricardo Santos

    If the USA decides to do the same, the result will be that people will not have room to vent. Resulting on people finding other avenues, like overthrowing government. Thus I doubt the USA would do something like that. Instead they will create a black list of ips, so that they can selectively shut down the opposition. And this is the new law purpose, selective freedom of speech.

  3. A global satellite-based service would be invaluable in this type of situation. If no single government had jurisdiction over the satellites, there wouldn’t be any way to prevent people within the country from connecting with their own devices.

    What is the current availability of this type of service? I know there is global satellite phone coverage, so it can’t be too far from reality.

  4. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see governments shut down the internet. As the author stated it’s already happened/happening in other countries. Will probably be the norm. for governments in the future.

    When things go bad for people in power, the internet is one of the 1st things to get shut off. Saddle up your horses boys, it’s time to ride!

  5. One single day is a holiday.
    Two days is weekend.
    Three days is a national holiday.
    Four days is a disruption.
    Five days with out internet access is a catastrophe.

    Call me back if you can’t access the Cairo Stock Exchange for a week.

  6. I wish we weren’t using terms like “switched off” as though there a big Red Button somewhere. This is a communications network that was designed to survive a nuclear war even if large chunks of it were destroyed: there is no circuit to break or central control point. Factor in the enormous growth in commercial use and the distributed control of all those ISPs and backbone providers. Also consider the gov’t doesn’t control a TLD like the .eq domain: who owns .com/.net/.org? And more to the point, can you imagine a more destructive blow to the economy that shutting down access to Amazon or any other large retailer? Or breaking the links between the large financial centers and stock exchanges? Even the government itself would be hamstrung by this.

    While I agree that it’s an unacceptable undemocratic action on the part of the Egyptian gov’t that we should denounce (does our own Bill of Rights protect open communication in the same way? Maybe a more modern 2nd Amendment would protect unencumbered electronic communication over guns.) I find the hysteria distracting and silly. I would expect journalists who are versed in this area to use more appropriate words like “tampered” or “degraded” before switched off. That would reflect a more complex action than simply throwing a switch and would make clear that many people were involved, technicians and administrators, not just politicians.

  7. Funny, but wasn’t the entire premise of the internet intended to be its robustness? It was designed to provide communications even if nuclear attacks took out major links in the network. It should (theoretically) work around any outage.

    Back to the drawing boards…

  8. Devaron DLH

    I am one of those unusual people who has throughout my entire lifetime been gifted to “See” ahead. As i watched part of the Egypt uprising happening today I recall “Seeing it” in a dream about 3 years ago. It reminded me that this situation could very easily happen in this nation… its not so far away or so out of reason… the people are angry and hurt and disillusioned with the present government, this is a fact.. an uprising of the magnitude of Egypt and beyond could easily happen if people continue to be disempowered by the corporations, politicians and the local, state and federal government. If this does go to blows you certainly must realize that the gov’t will do all it can, all in its power to win, at any cost. What do you think the Gov’t of Egypt is now doing?

  9. I wonder how long it will take before the government restores access… what incentive do they have at this point? The moment access is restored, the Egyptian internet will be ablaze with criticisms and truths that the government would rather not have see the light of day.

    These are frightening times for those whose governments are too large/controlling. I wonder what would happen if the US Government shut the internet down in a similar fashion.

  10. What’s interesting to watch is how, without mobile or internet, the revolution continues. Life continues.

    The internet is NOT essential to communication. It speeds it up, it’s convenient, we love it. But, it’s not essential. To some degree, I have to wonder if not having internet, motivated more people to engage in the real world and head to the streets?

    The internet for commerce (keeping stock trading open) is essential for economic stability. Beyond that, we can live, breath and act, without it.

  11. Meanwhile, Sen. Lieberman attempts to reintroduce his “Internet Kill Switch” legislation in the U.S. Senate.

    The revised version includes new language saying that the federal government’s designation of vital Internet or other computer systems “shall not be subject to judicial review.”

    • **** “shall not be subject to judicial review” ****

      Didn’t know it was in there, but when I read that phrase it tweaked a brain cell that referenced back to Henry Paulson’s (Sec of Treas under Bush :) COUP document.

      “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

      DId yOu cAtCH THAT? Paulson went further. Not just the courts are cut out but “any adminstrative agency” as well.

      Paulson also was giving to Himself the authority to APPROPRIATE any funds He wished.

      “Any funds expended for actions authorized by this Act, including the payment of administrative expenses, shall be deemed appropriated at the time of such expenditure.”

      HE could pass ANY legislation He wanted to:

      “(5) issuing such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to define terms or carry out the authorities of this Act.”

      Give powers to anyone and hire anyone He wished to:

      “(1) appointing such employees as may be required to carry out the authorities in this Act and defining their duties;”

      What miscellaneous authorities did G-d Paulson give Himself? Answer: Authority OvER tHe miLItary and thE PoLIce.

      “In exercising the authorities granted in this Act, the Secretary shall take into consideration means for–

      (1) providing stability or preventing disruption to the financial markets or banking system; and

      (2) protecting the taxpayer.”

      The last one is my favorite. Who is a *taxpayer*? Hmmm, is not everyone, even candy purchasing kids liable to pay tax? Corporations are also taxpayers…

      G-d Paulson covered all his bases.

      Even the one about being G-d Forever:

      “Sec. 9. Termination of Authority.

      The authorities under this Act, with the exception of authorities granted in sections 2(b)(5), 5 and 7, shall terminate two years from the date of enactment of this Act.”

      Paulson wants you to believe this terminates in two years. However, 2(b)(5) does NOT terminate and that one says he can just place the crown back on His own head:

      “(5) issuing such regulations and other guidance as may be necessary or appropriate to define terms or carry out the authorities of this Act.”


  12. Bobbie Johnson

    Stuart, reports are emerging about people trying to create ad hoc wireless networks that can’t be blocked like this. I’m not sure how accurate they are, but protestors would obviously benefit from finding successful ways to route around the existing system.

    • There’s always CB or FRS(family radio service) which are basically walkie-talkies. A Pair of FRS radios sell for under $20. Range is a few miles; more from hilltops.

      Ham radio (where operators are tested and licensed by governments) provides long-range comms, but most governments can force such stations off the air. And since they’re licensed, they can go to the home and forced it off.

      Too many people rely on the Internet or cellphone. This should be a lesson how they can go down in an instant, either accidentally or by government fiat.

      I keep three FRS radios around “just in case”

  13. I heard all the cellphones went dark so that people couldn’t send messages or call each other in order to organize. All I could think about was Nokia’s “Instant Community” concept and how useful that would be in times like this. If people can form ad-hoc networks and communicated without the need of cellular or internet then there would be almost no way to stop groups from organizing.

  14. It’s amazing that this could happen. It’s also a massive death cry of the old regime. The kind of thing that winds people up more and creates a flash point, as it has done today!

    Interesting that Tunisia decided to unblock everything; the exact opposite. Perhaps they thought if everyone was busy twittering and watching stupid videos on YouTube they might be too busy to protest. That back-fired! :D

  15. This is why we should implement a ‘world-wide-web’ that can be run using device-to-device networking, like router to router and phone to phone etc. Is that feasible? In the very least it would allow people within a single city to communicate in situations like this.

    • why we should implement a ‘world-wide-web’ that can be run using device-to-device networking, like router to router and phone to phone etc. Is that feasible? In the very least i

      • Inefficient, at current, definitely yes, if at all possible with current technology. Stupid, definitely not. The idea of having all kinds of radio equipped devices relay information freely among each other to nearby similar devices, is a very good idea. The problem, and probably why you use the word “stupid”, is that there still is no real protocol for creating a global on-demand WIFI mesh (or whatever you would call it). There are some attempts on mere research bases in approach. So far the only solution I can see would be following Bill Gates old idea about a mesh of satellites that would cover most of the planet with free and uncensored access to the net (if they can get the equipment to tap into it).